The Danish National Symphony Orchestra's recording of Maskarade succeeds admirably in striking a careful balance between these ideals. The present DaCapo SACD is an enhanced reissue of a 1977 presentation of Nielsen's opera. In addition to the model recording the essays and performance data in the generous booklet invite further study and appreciation of this acknowledged favorite among Danish operas. Performances of Maskarade during the 2005 Bregenz festival suggest a renewed interest and reappraisal of this work for the musical stage. Despite a perceived unevenness by some of music supporting the dramatic action, the current performances have emphasized the strengths of Nielsen's work.
The three acts of Maskarade are joined by a dramatic unity underscored through temporal designations in the text. On a single day in 1723 Leander, the son of Copenhagen's citizen Jeronimus, tells of his adventures at the masquerade ball on the previous night. Contrary to his father's wishes that he marry the daughter of Leonard, Leander declares his love for a young woman whom he met at the masquerade. He balks at his father's insistence and resents both the diatribe and proscription of future participation. Those taking sides for and against the masquerade are divided into two camps, with most at least secretly yearning to attend. The next two acts take place later on the same evening (II) and then during the masquerade that night (III). After its resolution of plots and disguises for the ball, it is finally revealed that Leander's love is actually the daughter of Leonard, and that he simply had not earlier apprehended her identity.
The integration of music and plot in Maskarade is especially evident in the present recording. Under John Frandsen the Danish National Symphony Orchestra emphasizes carefully Nielsen's striking compositional patterns for orchestra and for accompanied voice. In the overture, the modulation between larger repeating themes and lighter dance rhythms is attentively observed as here played. The repeated themes are then - in part - identified with emotions and characters' situations, whereas dance motifs are associated with the integration of the masquerade into human lives. The overture closes on an increasing diminuendo, ending thus on the softest chords. Such a subdued conclusion highlights at the opening of this drama the sleepy pair of Leander and his servant Henrik, who had both spent the previous night until all hours at the ball. The roles of young gentleman and manservant are given convincing portrayals here by Tonny Landy and Mogens Schmidt Johansen respectively. In their singing and acting, especially in interchanges during all three acts, both men create the character-types of the love-struck young hero and his clever valet who manipulates from behind the scene. Johansen, the baritone servant, holds forth convincingly by imitating the voices of those who would complicate his master's life, while Landy basks in a moody reverie of nascent infatuation. Neither singer relies on cliche to achieve characterization but rather preserves a distinct individuality of portrayal. This same approach can be appreciated in other members of the ensemble as well. Leander's mother Magdelone, aware of his nocturnal escapades, enters the room early and begs to know if she might still attend the masquerade as she had in her youth. In the role of Magdelone the contralto Gurli Plesner delivers a lesson in singing and dramatic representation, as she courses through various melodic styles to describe what had been her adolescent skill at dance. Frivolity in this small group ends abruptly with the stark appearance of Leander's father, Jeronimus, sung in this recording with appropriate bluster and irritability by the established baritone Ib Hansen. Arguments, counter-plots, and denial figure among the characters who alternate in duets and larger ensembles. In response to a condemnation of the masquerade as morally tainted, Henrik defends the entertainment as benevolent and having socially egalitarian properties. As Jeronimus gives orders for his son to be guarded at home so that he might marry Leonard's daughter on the following day, we sense that Henrik will devise a ruse to spirit him out of the house and off to the alternate world of the masquerade.
In contrast to the appropriately lively and harried tone of the overture to Act I, the orchestral prelude to the second act is taken as softly lyrical under Frandsen's direction. Here the emphasis on romantic and dreamy nocturnal sentiments functions as a transition to the later excitement of the dance and masquerade that will dominate much of Act III. In that final part of the opera the Danish National Symphony Orchestra resumes its concisely spirited playing in its approach to the well-known "Dance of the Cockerels." Between these orchestral pieces the interplay of romance and humor follows a tight pattern: when Leander and Leonora meet again, they declare their love alongside numerous comical attempts to enhance or to thwart their relationship. The role of Leonora, appearing first in Act II, is given a clear lyrical focus by Edith Brodersen, whose mutual song of romance with Tonny Landy recurs melodically with haunting polish later in the scene. In keeping with Henrik's assertion of social equality in the masquerade, he too is paired in the ensemble with Leonora's maid Pernille, here performed with soubrette brilliance by Tove Hyldgaard. By the close of the opera the misunderstandings and mistaken identities caused by disguise are resolved to the good of those involved, just as the lead romance is allowed to prosper outside the masquerade. Henrik's claim for the benevolence of the institution remains untouched.
The predominantly Scandinavian and German cast in this recording performs the declaimed and spoken parts of the text with natural idiomatic clarity. It is to be hoped that the re-issue of this performance will contribute to a greater familiarity in the operatic community with Nielsen's masterpiece.